Fiona Wright has offered a collection of reflective essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, on what it is to have anorexia, what it means and what it does. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life reading about a range of mental illnesses, including anorexia but I learned a lot from Wright’s work. Actually, I was surprised by how relevant it was to me.
A returning theme for Wright is her initial understanding of her failing health and diminishing diet as being wholly separate from ‘those people’. ‘Those people’ with real eating disorders, she thinks, want to lose weight and be thin. A complexity for the course of Wright’s illness was that she had a rare condition which caused her to involuntarily regurgitate much of what she ate. Her restrictive diet was simply a consequence of the fear of throwing up and a pervasive sense of anxiety. Until it wasn’t. Until at one point she found herself in an outpatient eating disorders programme and able to relate to the women and men (despite stereotypes, eating disorders affect men) there.
The true character of eating disorders is unpacked in unexpected ways. Stealing food for instance, particularly food someone with the disorder won’t ever eat, is a common story. People with anorexia do actually eat, just in small and peculiar ways. Junk food may also not necessarily be the enemy – Wright describes one patient as being terrified of bananas, but not chocolate.
Wright’s arguments are complex and interwoven with a mix of research and experience. She describes ‘hunger’ as having its own self-sustaining logic. Once you get accustomed to it, it becomes addictive. Evolutionarily, hunger is a sign of upcoming danger in the wild and, as such, every physical sensation is deeply felt and it is intoxicating.
Hunger is a longing, a longing for food which is denied, and also a longing for perfection. Wright describes a world of miniatures, tiny doll houses, for instance, which are whole in their detail, easier to contain and control for their smallness. So too does a person with anorexia attempt control, ‘precision and perfection’, reining in chaos with their small bodies. Wright writes that ‘I don’t want to be a treasure, or a doll, but I haven’t yet discovered how I might live a full-sized life instead’.
With hunger also comes a disappearance, one that might be desirable for people who aren’t sure of their place in the world and don’t feel entitled to it, who want ‘to take up as little of it as possible’.
Here, I recognise myself. Not as a mirror of anorexia, but certainly as a person with unhealthy eating patterns, and a longing to disappear. I felt vulnerable to the potential of miniaturisation of my life on the few occasions I’ve decided to count calories – it starts off okay, until a magic form of arithmetic tells me the only safe number is ‘zero’. But the problem is broader than one of food, or weight, it is one of being. I spent much of my early life wondering if I were actually invisible. It was a nice thought, that I might be a ghost, that I could live purely through my eyes and not have to accept the mess of agency.
I don’t mean to say that an eating disorder is ‘normal’ or simply an extreme diet. Not at all, it is the most deadly type of mental illness there is and it is incredibly complicated. Nonetheless, it seems that there are levels on which we can relate to most, if not all people and what they are struggling with. That act of recognition can be uncomfortable though.
I recognise in Wright also her denial of mental illness. That is to say, I recognise her lack of recognition. It is a common story for most people I know who have dealt with mental illness. For years, I knew something was wrong with my strange experiences of mood (elation and depression mostly), but I felt that I couldn’t have bipolar because I wasn’t really ‘like that’. Even when I was being told I had the disorder, I said, ‘Oh, I thought that to be manic you had to think you were God, or something.’ The stereotypes and stigma about mental illnesses are perilous because it puts long years in between the onset of suffering and the reception of help.
It is also useful to have a diagnosis because it gives you a new language. Wright likes that the language distances your identity from the disorder you have. You didn’t starve yourself, you went through a phase of restriction. Yet, as she writes, ‘now it feels like swearing: use the words often enough and they lose any power to shock.’
I have something to add to that. The language is useful as a way to validate your experiences and connect them to wider phenomena and tendencies. But ultimately, it’s someone else’s language. My repeated frustration with writing about mental illness is that I need these words (bipolar/mania/depression/anxiety/mental illness…), which implicitly puts power in psychiatric constellations of diagnoses and concepts. These are clinical and experientially limited. If I can’t develop my own language to talk about it, then my struggle to express myself with truth and precision is sublimated.
On this basis, Wright is successful because she is able to add new insights and a new vocabulary in the world of eating disorders. She refers to her ‘hunger’ often, that complex sensation of wanting and abstaining and basking, it is a helpful conceptualisation but not a medical term. I don’t know if everyone with anorexia will find complete commonality, I doubt it, but I see a shift in talking about the realities that just get skirted over, or theorised without the vivid colour of the everyday.
It was helpful to see Wright’s reflections cover not just the illness in full swing the way many memoirs about eating disorders do, but also attend deliberately and extensively to the process of recovery. Although, as she reflects, even the word ‘recovery’ has a strangeness to it, one of the many jargon terms that can be both a useful tool and entirely meaningless.
As I have mentioned, I’ve read many books about mental illness – I’ve been obsessed by such narratives over my reading life. My favourite was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, an autobiographical work of fiction. But I’ve stopped reading them in the last year or so because it no longer seems salient, but almost boring. The gradual loss of suffering’s metaphorical or aesthetic power makes me happier, and less inclined to seek out similar tales of suffering.
Strangely, jadedness has come to be my saviour. I don’t want to read about Plath’s Esther Greenwood coming close to dying in her basement. What used to seem poetic has become repulsive. The Bell Jar is absorbed in pain. There is a point where Esther is discharged from hospital and goes back to college, but it is quick, and empty. Some critics, for instance, say that The Bell Jar ends in what’s known as a ‘flight into health’. Esther (and Plath) is so afraid of the electroshock therapy she receives in hospital that she goes in very sudden remission so that she can avoid the experience. She turns back into the glowing, high achieving, all-American girl, but if Plath’s life story is anything to go by it is a façade.
The details of superficially ‘getting better’ serve our narrative conventions, a story needs an ending, and it needs to make resolutions. But life is not like that.
This is something that Wright is aware of. Her thoughts often focus on the complexities of recovery, as well as the need for a better vocabulary for it. ‘There’s no room in any narrative of recovery I’ve seen for [the] terrible sadness, [the] unreasonable fear, and [the] unmeasurable movements, backwards and forwards and sideways, towards, away from and around whatever a return to health might mean.’ There is no one moment or epiphany which makes wellness simply happen, it is a long and arduous collection of nonlinear experiences. And you only know their value after they’ve occurred.
Wright’s text opens up those questions that everyone, particularly those with a mental illness, must face. How to live a good life in its continual flux and oscillations? By getting to this point, she affirms that there is more interesting things about people living with mental illness than their illness. While it’s true that narratives about the height of pain in mental illness usefully promote empathy, alone they are meagre and are missing the best part of the story – the recovery, the bit that involves agency and complexity and coming to terms and creativity and resourcefulness and resolve.
Over the course of reading Wright’s work, I’ve grown to admire her for her mind, and also for her stark self-reflection. Both her ability to see where she may have erred, and her ability to make peace with those things and use them to teach. I feel like this is what I strive for as a person living with mental illness, that I can harness the experience and make it count for something. Small Acts of Disappearance does just that.